Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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The Magic Gardener

Emile, one of my closest friends who had been in my life for thirty years, died last week. 

It was a blessing as his health had been declining for several years.  No one who loved him wanted him to suffer any more. He was loved by everyone he knew, because he was one of the most honorable, happy, skillful, generous-hearted, and helpful person I have ever known.

He came into my life on a hot July day in the late 1988s. I was living in a restored Acadian house off Rosedale Road. I wanted a garden.  George Richard, the owner, had a white picket fence built to protect the garden from his horses. All was well until the weather got hot. I called Gracie Mae Kinchen, our housekeeper for many years, to ask if she knew anyone who could help.

“I think Emile could,” she said.
“Is he a gardener?
“He’s a carpenter but he catches on quick.”
As he did.  

The first day I showed him the difference between a weed and a plant we wanted and he never looked back. 

When I tired of country living and moved to a townhouse in Le Havre, a place near one of the LSU lakes, Emile made a patio garden and started an Everlasting wisteria on the iron work on the second floor balcony.  I convinced the president of the association that if he allowed me to have six roses on the ground next to the wall that created my patio, Emile would see to it that they were well-cared for and would not allow weeds to take over. And so I had my roses essential to any garden.

Another move came when I became engaged to my second husband, Dick. We hunted for a house and found the perfect one on Sweetbriar. Lots of room for gardens there and Emile made the most of every bit of land. He designed an English cottage garden for the front yard bordering it with a wooden picket fence. He grew roses in an area that backed up to our bedroom with climbers on the fence that separated our property from next door. And because Dick loved tulips, Emile planted 600 bulbs every year.

At that time, the Ford property hadn’t been sold and was still a pasture with cows. What a gift to have that stretch of pasture giving us complete privacy. It also offered wild flowers that bees flock to and so I got a beehive. The bees were Italian Golden, very aggressive, but none of us ever got stung. A beekeeper who lived on the Gulf Coast robbed the hives and processed the honey. 

The first time Morgana, our mostly Black Lab with a chocolate tabard she could thank a Catahoula hound for, saw the beekeeper in his white one-in-all, thick gloves and a helmet with plastic goggles, she raced to the door and barked until he left.

My daughter Pamela, who lives in Albuquerque, has three hives. She’s learned to care for them herself, does the robbing  and processing, then seals the honey in jars to give to family and friends.

Emile worked for us two days a week, another two for good friends of ours and the fifth day for an elderly lady who lived next door to them. One day he came to work and said the lady had died and did we know anyone else who might need him.

Dick said he did.
“Who?” I asked.
“Me.”

By that time. we had a country place near New Roads and having a third day of Emile’s time was a huge help in keeping up. 

The two of them and Morgana would drive out there beaming at the joys that waited for them at AVALON. Dick was a huge fan of King Arthur so of course his dog was Morgana and his country home AVALON. I would wave good-bye, telling them to have fun knowing that a highlight of their day would be lunch at local seafood restaurant where they ate every fried thing in sight with no one to shake her head and suggest a salad.

I stayed in Baton Rouge some years after Dick’s death, but then my daughter Aimee and her husband John were going to give me my first grandchild. So I moved to New Orleans where Aimee was the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and also taught theatre. 

John had a studio separate from the house and there he first began his beaded pieces, incredibly complex and colorful works of art, all made of Mardi Gras beads. He beaded an upright piano that is in a jazz club in Los Angeles, and another that is currently at a restaurant in Baton Rouge. He also painted landscapes, and made montages into portraits. He and Emile were like brothers. Aimee and John lived only eight blocks from me and Emile was always available to help them, too.

Emil and Sebastian, my first grandchild, bonded right away, as did all the neighborhood children when we lived on Sweetbriar. My grandson Noah was here for lunch a few Sundays ago and he talked about the wonderful tree house Emile had built. He and his friends spent many pleasant hours up there, some of which were dedicated to water balloon fights whose limp remains stuck to the courtyard pavers.

The New Orleans home was a raised cottage on Jefferson Avenue. Emile drove down twice a week. First he put a knot garden in the space in front of the house. The backyard was small, but not so small that we couldn’t have a rose bed and a perennial bed. 

A few days after I moved in, I suggested to Emile that we get some hanging baskets to put around the porch and living room walls. 

“I’ve been driving around our new neighborhood to see what people do. They don’t use hanging baskets. They use window boxes.” 

Needless to say, we bought window boxes.

When I left New Orleans the year before Katrina hit and moved to my current house, Emile had more space – nine tenths of an acre – to garden in. He installed a vegetable garden on the side of the house: okra, tomatoes, summer squash, eggplant and string beans. He also planted two fig trees. He put in a rose garden outside my office window. There are irises and other perennials, and vines like Clematis, Morning Glories, Honeysuckle and Moon Flowers climbing on arches.

After the 2016 flood, Emile and his crew worked tirelessly to get me settled back into the house before Christmas. We picked out the tree together.  As I watched Emile string the lights and hang the highest ornaments, I knew that despite many more boxes to unpack, I was home. 

There is a quote I think of when I remember all those joyous years with Emile.

“One is closer to God in a garden than any other place on earth.”  

It’s a great comfort to know that for many hours in his life, Emile was just that.

I know Dick and Morgana were among the first to welcome Emile in Heaven. I can hear Dick saying, “What took you so long?  We have work to do!”  Two incredible men, joined once more.  

My eyes are full of tears, but they’re happy, not sad. 

Emile may be physically gone, but he will never die in my thoughts and heart, spirit is alive and well.